Friday, November 02, 2007

Portal Reconsidered

A few days ago I wrote about Portal and pointed out that I felt it was OK rather than great. Yet every other gamer seems ecstatic about it. Tipa from West Karana's reaction is fairly typical: "...the best single player gaming experience of the year".

This got me thinking. How can I be so at odds with my fellow gamers? I have to admit the game is clever, novel and humorous. I enjoyed it enough to finish the whole game in a single day sitting. The ending is very good and worth finishing the game for. In fact I can't really find a reason to criticise the game and yet something about it bugged me. Something that pulled strings at the back of my head without ever registering fully with my conscious mind (and I am not talking about the headache I got from playing for too long).

Do you know what I think got to me: the jumping. To be more precise the precision jumping that was required by so many of the levels.

Back in the mid 1990's no self respecting first person shooter was complete without a smattering of precision jumping puzzles. Regions where you holstered your BFG armaments and leapt from perilous edge to perilous edge in order to progress. Misjudge your takeoff by one pixel and you would surely plummet to the depths leaving you to restart that particular section all over again. Doom had such puzzles, Half Life had lots of them.

I hated these parts. They seemed completely out of kilter with the normal bullets flying mayhem of the rest of the game. I guess some other gamers must have agreed with me because in recent times shooters have pretty much dispensed with jumping puzzles.

Nevertheless the message has been imprinted and whenever I come across a precision jumping puzzle in a game I experience an involuntary wince. "Oh no here comes the silly jumping part we have to struggle through!"

While thinking about this post I looked up Portal in Wikipedia and
read the history of Portal and how it came from a concept developed in an indie game called Narbacular Drop. One thing in particular caught my eye. In Narbacular drop you could fire the portal gun through a portal to create a new portal.

In Portal this feature has been dropped. On several occasions while playing the game I wished that this was possible. In many parts of the game a difficult to reach location could only be attained in one way - through perfect placement of portals and through precision jumping to reach the correct spot. I think that the ability to open portals through portals would have added a new dimension - allowing hard to reach spots to be got to through carefully constructed chains of portal placement.

I guess Valve chose to leave this feature out in order to increase the difficulty level but in doing so I think that they have increased the sports aspect of the game (precision jumping) at the expense of the puzzle aspect (clever use of portals).

Oh and in case you missed it here is a link to the free Portal inspired flash game. It is actually very good.

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